WHEN does journalism become show biz? When does depth in journalism get edged out by glitz? Where does the line get drawn between serious investigative reporting and prurient sensationalism? These questions have been debated by journalists for years. But they have taken on new significance with the emergence of television talk shows devoted, in the view of many press critics, to ``trash'' journalism.
The nation's leading newspaper editors spent a fair amount of time discussing this at their annual convention in Washington last week. They had a particular concern: Are the Morton Downeys and the Geraldo Riveras of television compelling more serious discussion programs to play to a lower common denominator? And if there is a deterioration, for competitive reasons, in television, what does this portend for the nation's newspapers? Must they follow suit and lower their own standards to get a bigger share of the audience?
Happily, nobody suggested government regulation, or censorship, of even the trashiest TV talk programs. But there was clearly concern and hope that the worst of the TV journalism programs would topple as a result of their own tastelessness.
Three talk show hosts defended what they do. Morton Downey Jr., brushing aside complaints that he is not really a journalist, described himself as an ``advocate.'' He said he permitted both sides to air their views on any given question discussed on his show. Columbia University's Fred Friendly, a former president of CBS News, who moderated the discussion, ran some footage from the Downey show depicting Mr. Downey shouting down a critic, and making earthy gestures to those who disagreed with him. But Downey persisted in his thesis that his show meets most Americans where they are. The argument seemed to be that he takes dull subjects and makes them bearable for the mass audience.
Mr. Rivera was confronted by clips from one of his shows in which he demanded intimate detail from a female sex surrogate. Was this not prurience, rather than journalism? demanded Mr. Friendly. Rivera bristled at the suggestion that he is not a serious journalist, and defended his subject selection with passion. He claimed his critics failed to take into account the broad sweep of his work, and were instead concentrating on the narrowly sensational. Or sensationally narrow.
Phil Donahue was honest. TV talk show hosts had to get an audience, he explained. Friendly then showed some film clips of Mr. Donahue's show. An older clip showed Donahue conducting a serious interview with H.R. Haldeman. A more recent clip showed Donahue introducing the subject of transvestites by appearing on stage in a woman's dress. Wasn't it unfortunate, Friendly wanted to know, that a role model like Donahue had ``made a fool of himself'' by wearing a dress on TV? Donahue made no apologies. A good epitaph for a journalist, he suggested, was ``Here lies so-and-so. Occasionally he went too far.''
Newspaper editors were not exempt from charges of sensationalism. Geneva Overholser, editor of the respected Des Moines Register, was taken to task for a front-page billboarding of allegations about Cary Grant's sex life. F. Gilman Spencer, editor of the New York Daily News, was subjected to embarrassment when Friendly aired his paper's threatening radio commercial for a serious series coming up on crime.
Some of the TV promoters claimed their programming was merely ``democratizing'' TV, making more information available to a larger audience. ``Baloney,'' responded Don Hewitt, of the CBS program ``60 Minutes''; ``it's all to make money.''
The bottom line, once again, seemed to be that the consciences of editors and producers will determine the content of their programs, and the audiences will decide whether those programs survive.